Bruce Fein concludes his new book, "American Empire: Before the Fall," by demolishing the worldview of Henry Kissinger as expressed in a Washington Post column last year. Of course it's also the worldview of the Washington Post and most of its readers. We must continue wars to save face. We must imagine we can win wars because facing defeat is too painful. We must talk about winning hearts and minds while increasing the bombings. We must plow ahead at full speed to demonstrate our determination, regardless of what it is we've determined to do.
Having played a leading role in a massive and historical defeat (and crime) using this approach, Kissinger's wisdom is naturally widely sought. But Fein's wisdom in taking him down -- in a chapter and a book that really should be read by all Americans -- draws on a longer historical view. Fein is a conservative, in the sense of wanting to return in certain ways to an earlier America, specifically the one that existed before we had an empire. Fein refutes Kissinger's fear mongering by building on the examples of the same that he has chronicled in earlier chapters.
Fein's America is built on four documents: the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, President George Washington's farewell address, and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams' July 4, 1821, address.
Washington said: "It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world."
Fein says: "What national security sense does it make for the United States to defend Croatia if it were attacked by Serbia over a border dispute, or by Russia as an ally of Serbia? If Croatia were swallowed by either, the effect on the liberty, safety, or welfare of Americans would be submicroscopic. Croatia, moreover, can contribute nothing to deterring or retaliating against an attack on the United States."
How selfish! Should we just sit by while Nazis kill people? Don't we have a responsibility to intervene militarily? Fein thinks not, and thinks our nations' founders thought not: "Liberty stands at the apex of the Constitution. But the Founding Fathers knew with a certainty that the liberties of American citizens would be crippled by any attempt to spread freedom abroad through military force. That mission would concentrate all power in the President and subordinate every liberty to national security clamors."
Fein paints a portrait of America, the early years, including a Congress that stood up for itself against presidents, and a Congress that refused to launch wars of foreign conquest. "She goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy," said Quincy Adams of America. Fein pinpoints the House vote to censure President James Polk for lying the country into a war with Mexico as "the last serious protest" against presidential imperialism. Fein claims that the Mexican-American war was "the first occasion when American leaders wielded military power for the sake of domination." This obviously ignores the slaughter of Native Americans, not to mention other escapades including the War of 1812, which was declared by Congress but was nonetheless driven by more than self-defense. However, Fein is focused on the presidential acquisition of war powers, as he should be -- as we all should be. After all, people can sometimes influence the Congress, and it is presidents who acquire power through war.
Fein chronicles various wars that presidents have lied our country into. But what about, at least the theoretical possibility of, wars of humanitarianism? "Morality," Fein writes, "even the prevention of genocide -- is a constitutionally illicit reason for initiating warfare. . . . That does not suggest, however, that individuals representing only themselves might not be acclaimed for volunteering to fight for freedom abroad on behalf of oppressed peoples. The constitutional transgression arises when the United States government coerces or otherwise employs its citizens to fight in wars that are irrelevant to American sovereignty." Of course, oppressed groups tend to be labeled terrorists by the U.S. government, and providing them "material assistance" is now an offense punishable by endless imprisonment, but Fein's goal is to eliminate such practices along with the wars that are used to justify them.
Fein takes on the argument that our nation has an interest in other nations practicing democracy, by demonstrating that democracies launch as many wars as any other countries. And, of course, wars do not tend to produce democracies. Fein addresses the supposed need to fight wars for resources by pointing out and documenting that "neither the United States nor any other country has ever been denied access to strategic materials or trade by so-called 'enemies'." But Fein addresses the moral argument only by shifting it to a legal one. What if it were legal to fight wars for humanitarian purposes? I think the moral argument leads to a position that lines up closely with Fein on U.S. wars of benevolence but parts with his position on something else: the United Nations. The United States has proven time and time again that humanitarian justifications for war are, in its hands, purely justifications for something else entirely. Clearly the people of the world would be better off if all wars were forbidden, at least until a truly representative and truly international government were able to produce something that could honestly be called a police action.
Which brings us to the United Nations. Fein would eliminate it, all of it, on the grounds that it violates the U.S. Constitution in granting presidents the power to go to war on the authorization of the UN Security Council without a declaration of war from Congress. Fein's Exhibit 1: The Korean War. But the UN Charter does not say a president has the power to make war, and blaming the UN Charter for presidential powergrabs and congressional subservience is too easy. That's a fight between presidents and congresses. Nor do I think that such a defect in one chapter of the UN Charter, if it existed, would be grounds for scrapping the United Nations entirely. The United Nations rightly opposed the launching of our wars on Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan. Its primary deficiency is in a lack of independent power, not in any conflict with the U.S. Constitution.
Elsewhere, Fein tosses "regulation," "protectionism," "welfare programs," and making "people financially dependent on government" into his lists of imperial evils, without explanation or elaboration. And while he would end all wars of aggression, Fein favors a form of defense that sounds more like retaliation than defense: The United States "should . . . threaten destruction worse than Hiroshima or Nagasaki to any country that attacks or begins an attack against the American people." And for non-state actors, Fein favors secret assassination squads, as long as they are approved by Congress and later made public.
I highlight all of these areas of possible disagreement in order to say that, nonetheless, I would trade the government we have for Fein's in a heart beat. I may oppose assassination squads, but I -- like Fein -- would accept them as a substitute for war without hesitation. And if Americans had any notion of what war means, all such discussions would take on a very different form. As it is, people who cheered for Fein when he spoke in support of impeaching George W. Bush will now denounce him for disagreeing with the same abuses of power when engaged in by Barack Obama. Having been established as an enemy of Obama, not to mention Social Security and healthcare, Fein will be lumped with the Teabaggers and forgotten there by millions of well meaning people. But we ignore Fein's warnings at our own peril, and that of the rest of humanity.